Donald Andrew Henson II

Ghost in the Machine

In Nostalgia for God, Religion and Society on April 14, 2013 at 12:24 pm

There are ghosts in my dish washing machine.

I was reading earlier this evening an essay about the evolution of religious thought. An evolutionary approach to religion posits that our systems of belief have changed over time as our brains and societies have developed. It is closely tied to the psychological approach, which holds that religious beliefs stem from psychological needs – such as the need to understand how our world works or what happens to us after death. Both theories see religion as a construct of the human mind.

A somewhat simplified version of the theory goes like this – the least developed religious ideas are basically different versions of belief in magic, fetishism, dream interpretation, and the like. Next comes animism, where the belief in souls or spirits prevail – appeasement of the spirits of departed ancestors or those who have some influence over nature. Spirits that are venerated for more than a few generations may become so powerful in the minds of believers that they morph into deities and demigods, and the next phase – polytheism – is  achieved. After this comes monism – the belief that there are several gods but you choose to worship only the one you think is best – and finally the short step from there is taken to monotheism. Some would insist that this evolution is still continuing today, and would ‘complete’ the process by appending deism, agnosticism, and atheism to this list.

Religious evolution doesn’t take place neatly even within a single culture, as some accept new ideas and others prefer to stick to the old ways. Even when a religion is considered to have evolved to a certain level, it often retains elements of the ‘lower’ form of belief – monotheists may venerate a relic in much the same way a primitive person believes in a fetish, polytheists might still pay soothsayers to perform magical incantations.

And agnostics may cling to ghosts, even when they know better.

My most prized possessions are a set of coffee mugs my mother gave me on our last Christmas together. In general, I have a lot of rules about drinking. There are certain drinks for certain times of the day or year, and they must be served in the proper glass or cup to be fully enjoyed – heavy cut crystal for scotch, chilled Imperial pints for ales, small snifters for cognac, etc. For coffee, the right mug is critical. Too big and not only does the coffee cool before you can finish, you look like you’re at clown school while drinking it. Too small and you can’t stir in your cream without sloshing some over the edge. The mug must have sufficient heft, thick enough to keep from scalding your hands.


In years of visits to my parents’ house, my mother had observed me drinking my coffee out of exactly the same set of mugs every time, going so far as to pull one out of the dishwasher and wash it by hand if none were clean. She commented more than once that the coffee would be just as good out of one of her other cups; I let her know that she was mistaken. Her last Christmas, I think knowing deep down inside that the cancer would not let her see another, she gave as gifts to friends and family many of her personal possessions – jewelry, photographs, figurines. She gave me the coffee mugs.

Every morning since her passing, I wake up, start the coffee, pull one of those mugs from the cupboard, and sit for a moment or two with my mom.  I don’t actually talk with her – or talk at all really. I’m just aware of her presence, somehow the cup in my hand bringing her closer for a moment or two. I think about what she might have to say about what’s happening in my life, or if the weather outside would suit her.

I know this is absurd. I know that we are material only, and that what we call the soul is a manifestation of the physical brain, nothing more. There is no spirit that continues to live – not on any alternative plane of existence, heaven, Elysium, nirvana – nor in our own. We know that when part of the brain is damaged, that part of the person we once knew can disappear; why do we think that when the entire brain shuts down, that person would continue to exist elsewhere? Dishes can last forever – the people who fill them by their labor and love do not.

But there are ghosts in the machine, old patterns of thinking wired into the hardware of our brain in more ancient times, ideas we know to be false but are still attractive. And so we preach against prejudice but are careful to move to neighborhoods with ‘good’ schools. We eschew organized religion but fall prey to gurus. We knock on wood, cross our fingers, pray.

Sometimes, the more ‘primitive’ religion has better ideas than the modern one. For example, most animistic cultures do not venerate an ancestor spirit for more than a predetermined number of generations; once everyone with any direct memory of the ancestor has died, the spirit of that ancestor is considered to be permanently gone. This means you can’t make up untrue accounts of what your object of worship supposedly said or did – because someone else would remember and call you out. You might recite words of wisdom that had been handed down from generation to generation – but you don’t worship the person who said them. Imagine what a better place the world would be, how much nonsense we could avoid if we didn’t have such misplaced veneration for people who supposedly said and did certain things hundreds of years ago.

But ghosts are strong, and the struggle to rid ourselves of their influence continues. We hear the forgotten hymn and are moved by it. We miss the form, the ritual.

We whisper to a coffee cup in those dark and quiet moments before the dawn.


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